- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #2039
Jullian Assange. Photo: Espen Moe – flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)
The Labor government has announced that it will hold a national roundtable with media organisations and “key stake holders” to discuss press freedom reform. The review comes at a time when journalists and whistle-blowers are being subjected to heightened persecution and intimidation.
“Reforms will be informed by the reports on press freedom by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security of August 2020 and the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications of May 2021,” the government said.
“The Albanese government has already commenced a comprehensive review of all Commonwealth secrecy offences, as recommended by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which will specifically consider whether existing secrecy offences adequately protect public interest journalism.”
The following examples of creeping encroachment on press freedom and whistle-blowers illustrate that Australia’s security has not been threatened. Rather that governments have been embarrassed and crimes committed.
Julian Assange, cofounder of Wikileaks, published a series of leaks from former US Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning including the Afghan War Logs, the Iraq War Logs, and Cablegate exposing US war crimes.
He has been held in the high-security Belmarsh prison in England for the past three years after a long period in the Ecuadorian embassy. He faces extradition to the US on espionage charges; if convicted he would face the rest of his life incarcerated.
“Julian Assange’s work with WikiLeaks was important and in the public interest: exposing evidence of war crimes and other shameful actions by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Media federal president Karen Percy said.
“The stories published by WikiLeaks and its mainstream media partners more than a decade ago were picked up by news outlets around the world. The charges against Assange are an affront to journalists everywhere and a threat to press freedom.”
In response to questions by Independent MP Monique Ryan, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said: “The government will continue to act in a diplomatic way, but can I assure the member for Kooyong that I have raised this personally with representatives of the United States government. My position is clear and has been made clear to the US administration that it is time that this matter be brought to a close.”
Bringing something to a close is not the same as seeking to have the charges lifted and Assange brought back to Australia. There is no evidence that Albanese has made any serious attempts to do so.
A series of Freedom of Information requests to the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Attorney-General have found that no entreaties were made to the US.
David McBride, a former Australian Defence Force lawyer faces criminal charges for leaking to the ABC information on alleged war crimes committed by a small group of Australian troops in Afghanistan which led to the Brereton Review and its shocking findings. Up to now no charges have been laid against the military involved, but McBride’s criminal charges have not been dropped.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has the power to end the prosecution against McBride but has not.
On 5th June, 2019 the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the Sydney offices of the ABC. They scanned emails and documents connected to the reportage of alleged war crimes.
The “crime” that ABC’s Dan Oakes and Sam Clark is said to have committed was revealing in a 2017 series called the Afghan files on at least 10 incidents between 2009 in which Australian special forces troops allegedly shot dead insurgents and civilians including a 6-year-old child.
The next day, the home of News Ltd journalist Annika Smethurst was raided. She had revealed that the electronic spy agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASFD), was proposing that “emails, bank records and text messages of Australians could be secretly accessed by digital spies without a trace, provided the Defence and Home Affairs ministers approved.”
“The June Federal Police raids on the ABC headquarters and journalist Annika Smethurst’s home were another chilling demonstration of how excessive government secrecy, increasing authoritarianism, and a creeping surveillance state are undermining press freedom and the ability of whistleblowers to expose wrongdoing,” the Australian Law Research Centre said.
Former Australian Defence Force (ADF) lawyer Bernard Colllaery and Witness K, a former intelligence officer, were charged in 2018 and their homes raided following allegations that ASIS had bugged the East Timor negotiating team during negotiations over oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea, thus disadvantaging the East Timorese.
Witness K was given a three-month suspended sentence for conspiring to reveal classified information about an alleged spying operation. He had pleaded guilty.
The Labor government dropped the charges against Collaery in July 2022.
Impact of “anti-terror” laws
When police raided the ABC offices they held a warrant giving them the ability to “search,” “alter,” or “delete” documents found in the ABC computer systems. This was possible under one of the of so-called “anti-terrors” laws that had been passed with bipartisan support. These laws have wide-ranging ramifications well beyond anti-terrorism.
The Data Retention Act requires telecommunications companies and internet service providers (ISPs) to retain telecommunications data for at least two years. It gives law enforcement agencies the power to access data without a warrant.
There are other laws to enable these agencies to compromise confidential sources that provide information to journalists. These include the Assistance and Access Act, Identify and Disrupt Act, and the International Production Orders Act. The latter enables data stored in overseas jurisdictions to be shared.
There is also legislation making it an offence to reveal what happens in immigration detention.
Dr Diarmaid Harkin of Deakin’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences said: “Journalists are an important group who need to consider these laws, but these powers can also be used on lawyers, activists, politicians, and political opponents as well as other individuals “
Journalists are worried about surveillance of their contacts and fear they would lose more sources if greater protections were not afforded to the media.
“These surveillance powers, which among other things allow for greater retention and access to people’s private metadata, have been used by law enforcement and government agencies to compromise journalist’s private communications, at times without the proper authorisation,” Harkin said.
The raids, secrecy, and various laws such as collection of metadata, and actions of police and courts reduce the willingness of whistle-blowers to come forward, and the ability of the media to report actions of governments and private sector.
“The Albanese Government believes a strong and independent media is vital to democracy and holding governments to account. Journalists should never face the prospect of being charged or even jailed just for doing their jobs,” Albanese said.
Julian Assange is an Australian journalist who faces lifelong imprisonment for doing his job. Albanese, if you really mean it, then see that Assange is brought home and the pursuit of whistle-blowers such as McBride cease NOW, and they receive compensation for all they have been through!
“Whistleblowers and public interest journalism are vital to the health of our democracy. Australians have a right to know what our governments are doing in our name. Australian whistleblowers and journalists have revealed misconduct ranging from police corruption to kerosene baths in aged care and the inhumane treatment of people in immigration detention. Courageous people who expose wrongdoing should be encouraged to come forward and protected when they do so. Instead, they are being threatened with a prison sentence,” the Human Rights Law Centre noted.
Without protection of sources and whistle-blowers, public interest journalism is impossible, and democracy – as limited as it is under capitalism with its media monopolies – is undermined.
The review provides an opportunity for the government to repeal the anti-democratic laws and introduce strong protection for whistle-blowers and media sources.